What would Susan Sontag say? • Fred Ritchin

Moreover, Benjamin’s concept of the “aura of the original” becomes anachronistic when the copy of an image becomes indistinguishable from its source, as is the case today in the digital age. Given the current plethora of images, it can also be argued that the “aura” of not only the image but what it represents is largely erased, sometimes transformed into “branding”. And as synthetic images that look like photographs but don’t require a camera are made in greater numbers via artificial intelligence systems, the photograph’s witness function will most likely deteriorate further.

As a result, iconic photographs rarely exist today, with few images able to emerge from the billions produced that command societal attention, as was the case in the last century when newspapers and magazines could highlight certain photographs. on the printed page, lending them their journalistic authority. The advent of social media has transformed almost every photograph into an opinion that can be refuted, rather than a referent establishing the visible facts of a situation.

This break requires our attention. For example, reminiscent of photography’s earlier ability to establish what happened elsewhere, many in the United States are calling for the publication of photographs showing the pulverized bodies of young schoolchildren killed by gunmen with quality assault rifles. military. They argue it will bring society back to its senses and lead to more rational gun laws. Their arguments often refer to other such images, including those published in 1955 of the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, photographed after being beaten and lynched by American racists, or the 1972 photograph of Kim Phuc, 9 years old, burning with napalm. in Vietnam, both of which are considered powerful stimulators of societal change.

In 1945, before these two photographs were published, Susan Sontag commented on her own experience of. viewing photographs of the Bergen-Belsen and Dachau concentration camps for the first time: “Nothing I have seen – in photography or in real life – has ever touched me so clearly, deeply, instantly. Indeed, it seems plausible to divide my life into two parts, before seeing these photographs (I was twelve years old) and after, although it took several years before I fully understood what it was about.

More than seventy-five years ago, Sontag and many others could be moved by the photographs of those who are suffering, dead and dying. But today, immersed in a torrent of images with other media, the relationship with photographs is markedly different, so what Susan Sontag explored in her seminal book, On the photoseems in many ways essential to describe an earlier medium, which remains largely in our rear view mirrors.

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